Signifying Europe

Signifying Europe

by Johan Fornas


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841505213
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 07/15/2012
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Johan Fornäs is professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University in Sweden, director of the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden, and the editor of Culture Unbound: Journal of Current CulturalResearch.

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Signifying Europe

By Johan Fornäs

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-521-3


Name and Myth

One of the most important symbols that identify an entity is its name. In many cases, names are often overlooked and taken for granted in ordinary usage. 'Europe' is a splendid example: it is never analysed or mentioned in official EU documents, as it can hardly be replaced — being inherited since antiquity, not seriously questioned or contested by any alternative name, and therefore not an object of political choice. Other geographic names may well be questioned — think for instance of Macedonia or Kurdistan. But there is an evident consensus on how to name this continent, even though its external boundaries are not fixed.

Even so, the name of Europe is an important verbal symbol that carries specific associations, though they are today a matter of naturalised habit rather than of conscious interpretation. Being much older than the official EU symbols, it deserves to be treated first, as the latter cannot avoid being intertextually affected by the meanings attached to it — and to the mythological figure of Europa, to which the name is intrinsically linked.

What's in a name — and in a myth?

Juliet: 'What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.'

It is not surprising that the first part of this famous quote from William Shakespeare's Rome and Juliet has been widely used in a variety of contexts — from Umberto Eco's philosophical detective novel The Name of the Rose to a range of contemporary texts on gender, race, nationality or other identity issues. Juliet's optimistic position is effectively contradicted by the fate of the two lovers, as their family names doom their love to tragedy. Even without engaging in detailed analysis of how naming has been understood in cultural, social and linguistic theory, it is easy to see how two extreme positions have continued to struggle with each other.

At one end, 'nominalists' consider names to be arbitrary labels bearing no necessary relation to what they identify. Juliet's position suggests that names are only superficial conventions that do not affect the deeper meaning of existence. At the other extreme, 'realists' see names as strongly linked to objects and indeed crucial to their existence in the world. This is how Juliet's and Romeo's families might reason: for the Capulets and Montagues, names indeed meant everything, and at the end of the tragedy, the mortal fate of the lovers supports their position. By a strange twist, this is also what a third position would imply: 'constructionists' would argue that all social phenomena are the result of communicative discourses and have no separate existence outside them. Despite many mutual oppositions, a realist and a constructionist would agree that the question of what is a rose is impossible to even discuss without reference to the name of the rose: while one reduces language to a direct mirror of 'reality', the other in reverse reduces 'reality' to an effect of language use, whereas in contrast the nominalist understands name and reality as two separable entities.

In a general sense, names are words that in a given language denote and address something or someone, whether persons, collectives or things. On some relative level, each name requires and constructs a degree of unicity in its reference. The word 'dog' is thus a name for a unique family of animals, while 'Dog' may be used as name of a specific dog individual. Similarly, 'association for cultural studies' names a specific kind of associations, of which only one bears the name 'Association for Cultural Studies'. The names discussed here are standardised and intersubjectively constituted condensed verbal labels identifying specific individuals, groups, institutions or other social or geopolitical entities (rather than for instance natural objects or abstract ideas). They do not provide full definitions or descriptions of what they name, but being widely used they contribute to rendering it meaningful, since they — as word combinations — semantically and pragmatically link the named phenomenon to certain sets of values and ideas. Interpreting a name therefore shows how people have interpreted or given meaning to someone or something.

Some human and social categories have such a prominent position that they not only get more or less unique names but also are surrounded by various mythical narratives that are sometimes wed to a particular name, forming a symbolic association between denoted subjects, names and myths that mutually identify each other in fascinating ways. Unique among world continents, this is the case with Europe, sharing name with the female protagonist of the ancient myth of Europa and the bull.

Tracing the cultural history of the concept of 'myth' is again at least as difficult. A myth is a narrative of central value to a culture, binding people together in some way, and is linked to various rituals. From Greek antiquity until today, together with neighbouring concepts like fable, legend, story and tale, myth has had a typically ambivalent status. It may be read in almost oppositional directions. In one reading, myths are thought to codify important truths about something — existential insights that cannot be expressed in other ways, transmitting through history a kind of inner essence of a community, linking it to universal or at least long-term human predicaments. The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss sees myth as a transmittable symbolisation of virtually timeless structural truths of society's fundamental but unconscious laws. Another example is when Karen Armstrong argues that 'mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality'.

However, myth is on the other hand often taken as fiction describing impossible events and thus as the untrue antithesis of reason, history and factual knowledge. As Paul Ricoeur has noted, a long tradition of ideology critique and 'hermeneutics of suspicion' has worked to undermine mythical force, rather than affirmatively listening to it. Myths may be seen as sets of utterances forming communicative systems that produce meaning. As signifying practices they can be interpreted, but they are particular kinds of signifying practices, forming a metalanguage that reflexively thematises 'ordinary' communication about reality. Roland Barthes argues that myth steals from language, and that critical interpretation therefore can steal back from myth to uncover its hidden truths. This form of ideology critique has affinities with Karl Marx' views on the critique of religion and bourgeois ideology, with Sigmund Freud's dream analysis and not least with how Walter Benjamin understood the 'realization of dream elements, in the course of waking up' as the 'paradigm of dialectical thinking'.

The fate of myth is thus to be revealing and/or deceptive: competing with rational understanding by either representing a deeper truth of reality than can be expressed in ordinary manners, or on the contrary a distorted ideology that hides that same reality. Indeed, one may even argue that it is this ambiguous position in-between reality and imagination that is the characteristic trait of mythical thinking and makes it capable of giving rise to an endlessly widening range of new interpretations. In such a reading, a myth is not necessarily either right or wrong. It is a narration that mediates that which people believe is a central meaning for somebody and something, that is, a narrative key symbol that in temporally sequential and dramatised form expresses deep- seated shared meanings. Mythical narratives symbolically transform and transmit memories of past events in ways that unify real and/or imagined communities, giving basic forms to their cultural identities.

Introducing and interpreting the name and myth of Europe

Not all names are also myths, but some names either derive from mythical narratives or have subsequently had myths spun around them, elaborating their inherited meanings. This is the case with Europe. Neither name nor myth is mentioned as a European symbol by EU documents; this is because they are 'given' from the past, rather than a deliberate choice in the present. Today no political institution could, with any credibility, formally decide on a completely different name or founding myth of Europe. In other cases, such decisions are sometimes made, for instance when a city or nation state changes its name: think of Bombay/Mumbai or Burma/Myanmar. In Europe's case, the EU has named itself, but could only make a selection of the appropriate second term ('Union') and of the linguistic shape of the thus-composed name, while the concept of Europe itself has at this historical moment not been up for debate or had any serious competitors. It is always possible to reinterpret or deny a name or a myth, but in this case, no serious attempts have been made to invent or suggest a different name or founding myth.

As so often with old names, the origins of 'Europe' are unclear. It was used in ancient Greece, mentioned in writing in the seventh-century bc Catalogue of Women falsely attributed to Hesiod); again in The Histories by the fifth-century bc Greek historian Herodotus; in Library and Epitome by Pseudo-Apollodorus in the first century bc; and in the Roman Ovidius' Metamorphoses, written before year 8 ad. In the second century bc, the Syracusan poet Moschus clearly associated the myth of Europa and the bull to the continent. Visually, the mythical couple was depicted in vase paintings at least from the seventh century bc (Figure 1.1 and 1.2). These early sources link the name both to the landmass to the northwest of the Levant and to a woman in a specific, but somewhat puzzling, founding myth of Europe.

Europa was said to have been a Phoenician princess or noblewoman who lived somewhere in the region of today's Lebanon in the Middle East. She was the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre, who came from Egypt as the son of Libya and Poseidon. Her mother was his Egyptian wife Telephassa, and Europa thus had a mixed Asian and African heritage. Agenor also had sons: Cadmus, Phoenix, Cilix and possibly also Thasus and Phineas. (The Iliad instead suggests Europa to be the daughter of Phoenix, which would link her to a theme of death and resurrection, but this may rather be a misinterpretation of her roots in Phoenicia.) Zeus, the king of gods, fancied Europa and disguised himself as a white bull to be able to come near her more easily than he would in his mighty godlike appearance. Ovid stresses this dichotomy between power and love, and underlines the mildness of this bull, as it mingles with her father's cattle. Gathering flowers with her female attendants, Europa noticed the bull, liked him and climbed onto his back. Zeus then ran away with her to the sea before she hardly noticed, and swam with her to the island of Crete. There, she gave birth to Zeus' three sons, Minos, Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon, after which she married King Asterius and became the first queen of Crete. Zeus gave them miraculous gifts: a necklace, the bronze giant Talos, the hunting dog Laelaps and a javelin. The gifts were handed over to Minos when he inherited the throne. Zeus also constructed the Taurus star constellation to commemorate his adventure.

Herodotus' more prosaic version just states that it was the Minoans who kidnapped Europa to Crete without any divine intervention, but in any case she remains linked to the sacred bull that was worshipped in the Levant and notably on Crete. It is not difficult to see how such a narrative could be understood as a mythical vision of the first settlement of Crete, and by extension, of Europe at large.

The identity of Europa is complicated, and linked to the meaning of the name itself, for which several layers of signification have been proposed. A contested but often repeated idea is that it goes back to a Semitic word for the land of the sunset, that is the Occident.

It is plausibly argued that Europa was a goddess of the night, since her name relates to the Semitic verb 'to set'. A text from the Syrian city of Ugarit, a thriving commercial centre known to the Mycenaean Greeks before its destruction in about 1190 bc, speaks of 'our Lady, the goddess, the veiled bride [...] entering the sunset'. In essence, this is the myth of Europa, who was carried away far westward to be married.

Most sources allude to this reference to sunset and thus to the land of the West, but also to a place of evening and night. Some argue that Europa might be ultimately identical with the moon goddess. Support for this thought is supposedly given by the etymology of the Greek name that combines euro (wide or broad) with op (eye(s) or face) to mean 'broad-faced', presumably like the lunar cow. Lacking traces of any cult of Europa, one may doubt if she was herself really a deity. Later interpretations suggested the name implied that Europa was also open-minded, which is easy to infer from her fondness for the bull and the fearlessness with which she embarks upon the travel adventure.

The origins of the name and myth of Europe are opaque, as are their core meanings. It is even hard to know for sure in which order the word, the myth and the identification of the specific territory appeared and were linked to each other. Was the myth spun around a spatial entity or did the latter evolve from the former? Did the myth crystallise out of a cluster of different myths in that region? Where and when was the name and/or the myth associated with the continent? These issues are difficult to assess, and actually not really decisive in this context. What is important here is rather which interpretations have been transmitted and used through history until today, as this speaks of the ways Europeans have constructed their collective identification.

Europa was the result of a combination of Asian (her Levantine father) and African (her Egyptian mother) sources, but the myth focuses on her union with the animal/ god, resulting in a mixed offspring. The intervention of Zeus to transport her to Crete recalls other divine interactions with humans: from Prometheus' gift of fire (to be further discussed below) and Zeus' many amorous disguises to those in the Old and New Testaments. It implies a higher spirit as the originating cause of Europa's settlement on European soil. The abduction and the subsequent founding of the Minoan dynasty is a move to the west, towards the European continent. Ovid stressed both the whiteness and the peaceful mildness of the bull. This gives a mythical explanation to the fair skin colour of Europeans and also lends a tranquil and peaceful aura to the abduction that can otherwise be understood as a violent kidnapping and raping of the poor princess. Instead, it is represented as an adventurous excursion, where both parties are in the older sources generally depicted as experiencing a kind of joy. Her position on top of the bull is depicted as giving her a certain degree of mobility and empowerment, complicating the element of violence and pain, as she is undoubtedly subjected to Zeus' power: he restricts her movements, as she is dislocated to Crete against her own will and cannot return home to Phoenicia. The myth implies that she is abducted from her home and family, but not by brute violence. Instead, her encounter with the bull is full of pleasure and desire, bearing traits of a passionate romance, which may also contain an element of transformative self-abandonment and persuasive power play. She is involuntarily dislocated but not deprived of her life, health, pride or honour. Instead her liberation from inherited family bonds may be read as a metaphor for the passage to adulthood and forming one's own destiny on a new territory, away from parents and siblings — all through the intervention of passionate relation with a foreign Other, in this instance Zeus as bull. Europa is a rather willing object of the god's desire and manipulation, as she caresses the bull and lets him sweep her away across the sea. He awakens erotic lust in her that carries her away: not into alienated exile but rather into forming new relations on new ground. Interpretations of the balance between lust and force in this story vary between versions: whereas a 1632 painting by Rembrandt shows Europa violently abducted from her company (Figure 1.3), a twentieth century sculpture by Carl Milles depicts her as engaged in a love-battle (Figure 1.4).

Myths of origin often imply a union of opposites, which may subsequently be articulated with later unifying projects, such as that of the EU. The form of union implicated by the Europa myth is that of a sexual love encounter where opposites join and are united in their diversity, to create a new social community. This can serve as a model for how European unification is conceived today. However, the image of her and the bull makes it difficult to decide with whom to identify as a European: is it Europa herself, the bull, their mutual union or the land of Crete to which they travel? In certain respects, male European elites may find it easier to identify with the combined whiteness, eroticism, strength and smartness of the divine bull, but it is not he who bears the name of Europa. One might construct Europeans as bull/god and Europa as the land he loves, following a common idea of feminising the inhabited land, but this comparison halts here, as she is obviously more human than he. One could therefore instead identify with her and see him as some kind of higher fate placing Europeans in Europe, equipping them with divine gifts. Also, she does not appear quite as maternally nourishing as motherlands and mother goddesses tend to be, instead her marked geographic mobility affirms a central aspect of European history, from the Greek and Roman networks, over Crusades and colonial empires to the modern European forms of culture and communication that have always tended to be restlessly on the move, up until the expansive EU itself.


Excerpted from Signifying Europe by Johan Fornäs. Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1: Name and myth
    What’s in a name—and in a myth?
    Introducing and interpreting the name and myth of Europe
    Phoenix, Prometheus and post-World War II resurrection
    Captain Euro
Chapter 2: Identifying Symbols
    Approaching European symbols
Chapter 3: Symbols of a Union
    The emergence of Europe
    Introducing the EU symbols
Chapter 4: Day
    What’s in a day?
    Introducing Europe Day
    Interpreting Europe Day
    Comparisons and commentary
Chapter 5: Motto
    What’s in a motto?
    Introducing the European motto
    Interpreting the European motto
    Comparisons and commentary
Chapter 6: Flag
    What’s in a flag?
    Introducing the European flag
    Interpreting the European flag
    Comparisons and commentary
Chapter 7: Anthem
    What’s in an anthem?
    Introducing the European anthem
    Interpreting Beethoven’s Ode to Joy
    Interpreting the European anthem
Chapter 8: Currency
    What’s in a currency?
    Introducing the euro
    Interpreting the common euro designs
    Interpreting the national euro coin designs
Chapter 9: Projecting Europe
    Additional symbolic realms
    Four facets
    In conclusion

List of Figure Sources

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